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My wife’s family pride themselves on having something they think many of their compatriots have lost–close family ties. When Christmas rolls around each year, they get the chance to show well that they are closely knit. They try to organize several events for all the family who are around at this time of year. Many of the younger members are away studying, but come back to The Bahamas for Christmas. Those who live and work abroad, like my wife, ‘come home’ for Christmas–she has never spent Christmas any where besides Nassau. Those who live on New Providence are happy to have their usual numbers raised by the returning flock. Marriages have drawn in some extras. Children come onto the scene through marriages, and swell the numbers a little more each year; deaths in recent years have been few. Girlfriends, boyfriends–if they are serious contenders–get introduced, and there is a ‘vetting process’ that may ensure that they stay or never return. Fiancés and fiancées–those who have passed ‘the test’–come along too.

The Christmas season is a religious festival and church-going is an important part of that. The family want to go and be seen to have gone to church for all the major services during the season. You have to get used to be quizzed if you’ve not been to church for one of those services. The services are long, but the bonding is important. These islands are small and many people really do know each other and are proud of who they can call friends or family.

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No snow to dash through, walking to the start of ‘dine and dash’

Meals together play a very important part in making the family glue. Dinner on Christmas Day is the main event. I did not do a head count, but I think about 100 people were at dinner this past Wednesday. The location is not that important–though the family has had a special venue for the past few years. It is held usually at the home of one of the family members. It’s not a pot luck, but all of the food is homemade. Over the years, various parts of the family have been assigned dishes to prepare–they become the keepers of certain secrets–and dinner brings all of those dishes together. All the traditional favourites are there–roast turkey, stuffing, baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, baked beans (made from an old family recipe), cole slaw (Bahamians love their slaw); desserts–rum cake, fruit cake, other baked goods. Wines and soft drinks add to the festivities, but it’s not a carousing time. The family eats heartily, but commune well at the same time. Children are not served first; that privilege is for the seniors, who also have a special table set up for them.

That dinner is when many people can catch up on stories from the past year, but it’s also time just to mingle. Outsiders are not usually invited, but a few do get through the door, and are welcomed generously–their contribution, if any, will often be drinks. They are often amazed that so many people gather together for a meal. I’ve never seen the meal dissolve into a squabble, and that is not always the case with large family gatherings. The dinner can be the time for some ‘serious talking’: where I sat, all we discussed was the looming imposition of VAT, and my wife was getting it in the neck 🙂 I tucked into my meal and offered my words, but we never reached any resolution.

Other events that help reinforce the family are meant to draw together as many as possible. A ‘dine and dash’–progressive meal–is now a must: it nearly got cancelled this year, and that would have been a tragedy. We had it yesterday, and as usual, headed to five different homes, most of us in a bus and others coming in cars–just over 40 people came. Each of the designated ‘stops’ offers a course: drinks, soup, salad, main course, desserts. We arranged to start at 3pm, and in un-Caribbean fashion most people were ready to go then. A few had other ‘commitments’–Miami Dolphins were playing for their playoff spot and some of their diehard fans would have to miss a few courses and get picked up en route.

The ‘dash’ is often loads of fun. Those on the bus tell jokes and sing carols; children sit at the back and learn ‘from their grandma’s knees’, as she’s a good story-teller and knows all the Christmas carols. Her joke about ‘selling Bibles’ is an oldie but goodie and cracks us up every time, even though most of us know it. We should have made a video of one of the bus rides. I don’t know what the car riders do–solve the political problems, I’ve heard. We are not bad singers and like to ‘raise a tune’. A few of the carols end up as “la-la-la-la-la” but most of them we know well. The bus driver joins in if he can without turning us over. We pile into the bus as if we are headed off to the seaside, and trail off as if we are visiting a museum.

We enjoy our hosts’ offerings and find somewhere to sit or stand and are not fussed about that, except for the soup, which is a bit hot. At the end of each course, we launch ourselves into a couple of verses of The twelve days of Christmas–holding onto the “FIve golden rings” as well as any choir. We then pile back in and get on with more caroling. New Providence is small, but it’s still a journey to go from end to end. We start in the east, head west, then come back east. We end with dessert at the home of the cake-making family. Where else? We fill ourselves with trifle, coconut tarts and more cake, washing it down with tea and coffee, and our voices are raised for the final verses of The twelve days.

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Natter, natter, yackety yacking. “All aboard!”

After giving thanks to the driver and the hosts, we’re free to go. This year, the dash seemed slower–“We’re not in any hurry” the main organizer said at one stage–and with a general designated driver, it’s the right approach. We finished at about 9pm this year, totally sung out.

During the family dinner, one of the husbands of a family ‘sister’ thanked the family for keeping together. No one cheered his words, not out of disrespect, but more because it was a thank you well understood and a sentiment deeply understood. No one said “the country has gone to the dogs and it’s all because they don’t have family like this”, but I know many believe that to be true.

Everyone touched by the family feels blessed to have had the experience and tries to hold onto it. We know that families are not all love and kisses. We should know that Christmastime can be when strains and stresses raise their heads and bit many. They don’t get much showing at the group events, though, and I’ll live with the illusion that they are also on vacation.

Economic hardships and health problems have meant that a few family events were dropped this year; I hope that they will resume next year. It’s costly to feed and water the hordes and the family has to address how to share costs. People also need to step up with their time and commitment to prepare things if others cannot this time or any other.

Tonight, the family will go bowling. It’s the only time most of us will set foot in a bowling alley all year. We are not a group of great bowlers–unless soup is in a bowl–but this is fun. Older folks don’t usually play, but love to watch the ‘younger ones’ having fun; occasionally, one of them may swing a ball and not end up being dragged along or slip on the floor. It’s not really about the score or bragging rights, though they may loom large for a few. The time and spirit together are what’s important.

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